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99 Problems But The Law Ain’t One: A Legal Look At A Jay Z Classic

KillerBoomBox is proud to announce a partnership with MyBostonLaw.com to bring you “99 Problems”, a bi-monthly blog about legal issues affecting our community. Topics will range from traffic stops to search and seizures, child support to starting your own business. “99 Problems” will go down as one of the more memorable Jay-Z tracks, from the lyrics to the Ric Rubin laced beat, to the black and white video, it’s just an all around solid package. To celebrate the monthly blog collabo of MyBostonLaw.com and KillerBoomBox, we are breaking down the legal implications of the lyrics.

IMPORTANT NOTES

(a) THIS IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE. THE AUTHORS ARE NOT YOUR ATTORNEY. HIRE AN ATTORNEY
(b) EACH STATE HAS SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT LAWS, THIS ARTICLE IS WRITTEN IN THE CONTEXT OF MASSACHUSSETTS LAW, HIRE AN ATTORNEY WITH KNOWLEDGE OF YOUR STATE’S LAWS.
(c) WITH RESPECT TO TRAFFIC STOPS, WHEN IN DOUBT, THE OFFICER HAS A GUN, SO DON’T BE STUPID, DO WHAT HE SAYS, AND HIRE AN ATTORNEY!!
(d) WHEN IN DOUBT, HIRE AN ATTORNEY!!

In the second verse, Jay-Z is recounting a traffic stop he endured back in his drug smuggling days. There are a few lines in which he goes through his understanding of search & seizure law, some of which is not entirely accurate. Below we will explain some of the ins and outs of SEARCH AND SEIZURE LAW, with respect to traffic stops.

The verse starts off “The year is ’94, in my trunk is raw, in the rear view mirror is the m’fuckin law.” Here we can assume that Jay has drugs in his trunk, and since it’s 1994, he doesn’t have an Iphone to record the traffic stop. This is important because (a) he’s committing a crime other than the traffic violation (b) if this were today, and he wasn’t in a state requiring both parties consent to record audio, he could document the event and use it in court later. Any opportunity you have to document the events, you should.

“I got two choices, pull over the car or, bounce on the medal put the pedal to the floor.” Pull over or begin a high speed chase? ALMOST ALWAYS CHOOSE THE FORMER. High speed chases never work out for the driver. First off, if you “bounce,” (a) any drugs/weapons you ditch on your run is admissible because you abandoned it and weren’t arrested at the time of abandonment. Second, the Supreme Court has ruled that the police can use deadly force in a high speed chase, in order to protect the general public from the driver’s wanton disregard for the safety of others.
Pulling over seems to be the better choice for Jay here for two reasons. (1) He’s “got a few dollars [he] could fight the case.” (2) There is no K-9 unit in the police cruiser. We will go into why the lack of K-9 on site is important later.

Jay’s next response to “do you know what I’m stopping you for,” is “cuz I’m young, and I’m black, and my hat’s real low.” This is important because it sounds like racial profiling. It may very well be, but the law allows for some profiling. In Massachusetts, an officer can look at the over all picture; in this case, a young male, driving an expensive car, through a high crime area. Without more, this most likely not enough evidence for probable cause of a crime. However, what if there is a smell indicative of narcotics, or his license comes back and his criminal record shows he’s been convicted of drug crimes before? These are all things that must be taken into consideration.

“Am I under arrest or should I guess some more?” This is crucial because the game changes BIG TIME depending on whether you’re arrested or not. If you are, they get to search your car. (without going in to a ton of detail, officers get to search (A) to make sure you don’t have anything harmful, like a bomb (b) to inventory your items so you can’t say later that the police stole the 40 carat diamond you had in the trunk.) At this point in the song, he is not subject to arrest. He has violated no arrestable offense, having only been “doing 55 in a 54).

“License and registration and step out of the car, are you carrying a weapon on you I know a lot of you are.” Here, the officer confirms that he is not under arrest, but wants him to get out of the car. Jay’s response, “I ain’t steppin outta sh!t, all my papers legit.” Again, different states will argue different ways (as will different lawyers). Assuming Jay’s papers are legit, meaning he can drive, and the car is licensed and insured to be on the road, he has not violated any law that he can be arrested for, so he shouldn’t have to get out of the car without more reason. HOWEVER, the officer’s question as to a weapon could be that reason. Courts have ALWAYS held that safety concerns trump everything else. If an officer can show that he felt he or others were in danger, the cop would be afforded some constitutional leeway by the courts in ordering Jay out of the car. This is why, you should ALWAYS turn a light on when you are pulled over, and put your hands on the steering wheel, so there is no room for error (see note C above). In practical terms, this means if they want to get in, and your not a 4’8” blond girl with one arm, they will get in under the safety exception.

“Well do you mind if I look around the car a little bit.” This is the officer asking for consent. Never consent, because you can’t suppress the evidence later. Think about it like this. If the officer knows he is justified in his search, he’s going to do it anyways, so don’t give him a freebie.

“The glove compartments locked so is the trunk in the back,” This is an important distinction. First, the general law is that if the police are looking for weapons, they must stay within the “grabbable area,” or the area near the person where they could grab a weapon quickly. This is not the case for the trunk, and may not be the case for a locked glove compartment.

“and I know my rights so you gonna need a warrant for that.” As much as I enjoy Jay-Z’s lyrics, here is a situation where he is not 100% correct, in fact, he’s about 99% wrong. The Supreme Court has consistently held that in part because of the inherent mobility of a car, and the lower expectation of privacy afforded you while in a car, warrants are not generally required. As mentioned early, there is the safety exception, as well as searches required for inventorying an impounded car. However, the officer still must be able to point to articulable facts amounting to probable cause that there was evidence of a crime in the trunk or locked glove compartment. In the song thus far, there is no evidence of a crime, other than the verse’s opening lyrics, which we can assume Jay didn’t rap within earshot of the officer.

“We’ll see how smart you are when the K-9 comes.” If there was a K-9 unit, the dog will smell the drugs, which gives the police the evidence they need to search your car. Do not pass go, do not collect $200, go directly to jail. However, the Supreme Court has held that a “prolonged stop” i.e. waiting around for a K-9 unit to arrive can be grounds to suppress the evidence. Once the police have determined they are not arresting you, they can write you a ticket, or must let you go on your way.

One final note. The goal is obviously to not get arrested. However, if you do, suppression of the evidence becomes the new goal. Suppression means that even though they found the drugs/contraband/weapons on you, they did so in an unconstitutional manner, therefore, the evidence can not be used at trial. In practical terms, this means that if you were charged with trafficking drugs, but the prosecutor can’t use the drugs as evidence, they can’t prove your case, and you walk. In order to suppress, you or your lawyer need to file a motion to suppress. If you don’t have a lawyer, call me, because as the saying goes, “anyone who represents themselves has a fool for a client.”